Encore Theatre Magazine
:: Saturday, February 05, 2005 ::
Keeping the Dragon at Arm's Length: Crisis at the Arts Council of Wales
In November last year, Alun Pugh, the Welsh Assembly Government’s Culture Minister, made a hotly-anticipated announcement on the future of The Arts Council of Wales. While complete assimilation into government had been preferred, it was decided instead that the Council was going to be stripped of its strategic and policy-making function, remaining a grant-giving body only. Moreover, six organisations were going to be funded directly by government, including Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Welsh National Opera, Diversions – The Dance Company of Wales and Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru (the new Welsh-language national theatre.) In his main justification for the decision the First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, announced, ‘You can justify the existence of arms-length bodies in government, but there is no such thing as arms-length public money. Ministers are always responsible for its allocation and the Assembly is always responsible for its scrutiny. There is no dodging that responsibility.’ There is no dodging either that this is frighteningly short on considered logic.
Clearly, there are many ways to scrutinise the arts without the direct involvement of government in the decision-making process itself and Morgan has conveniently overlooked forty years of that happening across the UK. However, in the face of strong cross-party opposition and considerable disquiet in the arts community, the measure was enacted without even recourse to a vote, let alone some sense of process. While James Boyle’s Cultural Commission seems to be working inclusively and progressively towards a new settlement for the arts in Scotland, in Wales the move was a case of political expediency.
Some see the background to this as residing in Rhodri Morgan’s awkwardness over The Richard Report. The report was commissioned to look at ways in which The National Assembly could develop its powers. Its recommendations presented Wales’ First Minister with a problem – a demand for law-making powers and an increase in the number of Assembly Ministers. Knowing this would potentially split Welsh Labour with its traditional hostility towards the nationalist agenda of further devolution, Morgan acted – well, like a politician. In July, he made a sudden announcement that the Welsh Development Agency, the Wales Tourist Board and ELWA (the quango for education) were to be assimilated within government by 2006. At a stroke, Morgan had beefed up Welsh government without the need for significant constitutional change. Moreover, it revisited an eight-year-old soundbite of Ron Davies’s that there would be ‘a bonfire of the quangos’ under Labour. So sudden was this particular bonfire that the Chief Executive of the WDA had fifty minutes’ notice of the organisation’s demise.
Speculation quickly moved on to the cultural quangos and the position of The Arts Council of Wales, which has been fragile and vulnerable since the fiasco of its Drama Strategy that was formulated and abandoned in 1999-2000. While The Arts Council struggled to come to terms with the reality of devolved government, it was also being undermined by the relentless lobbying of figures in the arts, such as Terry Hands with his powerbase at Clwyd Theatr Cymru and Michael Bogdanov, who has developed links in Swansea. Within some quarters in the Council, the wearisome campaign for CTC to become ‘the English language national theatre in Wales’ and Michael Bogdanov’s promotion of his own aspirations with his ‘Wales Theatre Company’ have collectively become known as ‘The Hands-Bogdanov Pension Fund.’
However, it was the then Economic Development Minister, Edwina Hart, who may well come to be seen as the critical figure in the abandonment of the arm’s length principle. Apparently, Edwina Hart was once an active member of The National Youth Orchestra of Wales. In 2002, she made the decision to allow £200,000 of Assembly money to direct-fund a chamber orchestra in Swansea that she had links with. In a face-saving deal with the then Liberal Democrat Culture Minister, Jenny Randerson, who had no prior knowledge of this development, the fund was made open to up to five other chamber orchestras and the money administered through the Arts Council of Wales.
Gradually, by stealth, more and more organisations took to lobbying politicians directly with the result that funding was made available to them – a case in point being Clwyd Theatr Cymru’s mobile theatre. So determined is Terry Hands to recreate in Wales his previous vision for the RSC, he has decided that CTC should also have its own mobile theatre to take into leisure centres and municipal halls. Having applied to ACW for lottery funding for the project and failed on numerous criteria, including over-ambitious audience targets, the application was conclusively rejected. When Alun Pugh (in whose constituency CTC are based) became Culture Minister, however, one of his first acts was to make the decision that £150,000 of new funding from the snappily-named ‘Arts Outside of Cardiff Fund’ should go straight to CTC for its mobile theatre. Given that the justification was ‘to bring productions to communities that might otherwise not have ready access to professional theatre’, it was surprising that only five venues were part of the tour, including two that were within twelve miles of CTC itself.
When it came to Rhodri Morgan’s announcement about the Arts Council of Wales in November, therefore, one of the main arguments he deployed was that the Welsh Assembly Government was already directly funding certain arts organisations and the principle of arm’s length funding was irrelevant. Nevertheless, the reality behind the rhetoric was that until a week before the decision was made public, Pugh and Morgan were still working on the assumption that The Council could be completely assimilated. Having taken legal advice, however, they were surprised to discover that the terms of the Royal Charter meant that complete assimilation into government was a non-starter. While the majority of the arts community was rallying behind the Council, Terry Hands was lobbying furiously for it to be dismantled and busy withdrawing from every professional body that expressed reservations about the direction the Assembly Government was heading in. Meanwhile, Michael Bogdanov maintained a public silence on the subject in anticipation of the £50,000 he was due to receive for his Shakespeare trilogy.
The irony of all this lies in the centrality of Clwyd Theatr Cymru to the Council’s strategy during the last seven years. The principal aim of the 1999-2000 Drama Strategy was ‘to fund fewer, better’ by focussing extra funding on CTC, while cutting other companies, including the new writing company Made In Wales. In the aftermath of this period, the ACW was much preoccupied with restructure and a desire to prove to the Assembly that it had learned its lessons. With the Assembly Government focussed on issues around access and community, the Council signed up to these principles championing CTC as one of its main providers of popular and accessible drama. However, many of the central tenets of the Drama Strategy remained, such as the launch of the Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, while small companies and individual artists, responsible for much of the truly significant achievement in Welsh theatre during the last decade continued to suffer. While new writing and new work was under-resourced, Terry Hands pursued a policy of sanitised heritage theatre mixing classic plays with sentimental and crudely old-fashioned appeals to ‘Welshness’ with productions of The Alexander Cordell trilogy, for example, or plays such as Hobson’s Choice meaninglessly adapted to a Welsh setting. As with his tenure of the RSC, his interest in new writing and new work was negligible.
With the appointment of Geraint Talfan Davies as Chair in 2003, the Welsh Arts Council seemed to be opening a new chapter. With a reputation as an establishment operator, Davies bent over backwards to give the impression that he was prepared to be inclusive and open, while personally being very smitten with the kind of work provided by Clwyd Theatr Cymru. Last year, Peter Boyden was commissioned to produce in a short space of time a report into the future of English Language Theatre in Wales. Heartily grateful for any hope of development in the sector, the theatre community was mainly supportive of the initiative, but the report itself was deeply problematic. While offering a comprehensive and balanced diagnosis of the longstanding ills facing theatre in Wales, it was absurd to try and separate English language theatre from provision in other areas, such as Welsh language theatre or the young people’s theatre sector. Even worse, however, was the politically ill-advised attempt to attach a long list of proposals for development, which, in some cases, are poorly thought through, dependent on large injections of new revenue and strangely unbalanced in its attitude towards certain companies and ideas, reflective perhaps of the collection of interests dominating the Steering Group that had been advising Boyden. The major omission, however, was the failure to offer anything tangible to CTC, apart from a downscaling of its touring aspirations. While welcomed by the vast majority of the theatre world, this would have represented the final straw for Terry Hands.
Within weeks of the report, Chief Executive of the ACW, Peter Tyndall, was privately expressing his view that the report was ‘dead.’ With no interest in investing in the report’s proposals, the writing was clearly on the wall for the ACW. Sure enough, Pugh made his announcement and ‘strategy’ for theatre in Wales was now going to be decided by the Minister, his ‘Culture Board’ and ‘external advisers.’ In an attempt to save face, Geraint Talfan Davies has recently been denying that the ACW had been ‘emasculated,’ while showing no apparent willingness to fight the decision, or to resign from his post in protest. Perhaps even more surprising is the lack of vocal opposition to the move within Wales itself, although persistent demoralisation and fear of recrimination is playing its part. One person undoubtedly pleased with the outcome will be Terry Hands. However, there may be plenty of time for him to regret his enthusiasm, especially as Alan Pugh’s majority is under threat at the next election.